In contrast to traditional views, the Bible describes the church in the midst of culture, struggling to maintain its fidelity while tainted by the corrosive acids of paganism and Jewish legalism. This view is sharply relevant for the modern age. We will look briefly at three essential aspects of the biblical view.
1. The Bible sees the church in cosmic–historical perspective.
Scripture places the church at the very center of God’s cosmic purpose. This is seen most clearly in Paul’s writings, and particularly in the book of Ephesians. Paul was concerned to speak of the church as the result of, and within the context of, the plan of God for his whole creation (Eph. 1:9–10, 20–23; 3:10; 6:12).
What is this cosmic plan? Based on the first three chapters of Ephesians we may say it is that God may glorify himself by uniting all things in Christ through the church. The key idea is clearly reconciliation—not only the reconciliation of man and woman to God, but the reconciliation of all things, “things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10). Central to this plan is the reconciliation of people to God through the blood of Jesus Christ. But the reconciliation Christ brings extends to all the alienations that result from human sin: within oneself, between persons, and between persons and their physical environment. As mind-boggling as the thought is, Scripture teaches that this reconciliation even includes the redemption of the physical universe from the effects of sin as everything is brought under proper headship in Jesus Christ.
Paul emphasizes the fact of individual and corporate salvation through Christ, and from this goes on to place personal salvation in cosmic perspective. The redemption of persons is the center of God’s plan, but it is not the circumference of that plan. Paul alternates between a close-up and a long-distance view, for the most part focusing on the close-up of personal redemption, but periodically switching to a long-distance, wide-angle view that takes in “all things”—things visible and invisible; things past, present, and future; things in heaven and things on earth; all the principalities and powers—the whole cosmic–historical scene.6 Historically, the people of God have disagreed not so much over what God is doing in the world but over when he will do it.
Most Christians admit that, in one sense or another, God is bringing history to a cosmic climax. But one branch has said, “Not now; then! ” And, in reaction, another group has said, “Not then; now!” Those who postpone any real presence of the kingdom until after Christ’s return (“Not now; then!”) do not expect any substantial renewal now except in the realm of individual human experience—not in politics, art, education, culture in general, and not even, really, in the church. On the other side are those who so emphasize present renewal in society in general that both personal conversion and the space–time future return of Christ are denied or overshadowed, and humankind’s deep sinfulness is not taken seriously.
Hopefully, Christians today throughout the world are coming to see that the kingdom of God is neither entirely present nor entirely future. The kingdom of God (the uniting of all things in Jesus Christ) is now here, is coming, and will come
Francis Schaeffer well expressed this balanced view when he spoke of a “substantial healing” now in all the areas of sin-caused alienation. Christians are not to put all real reconciliation off into an eschatological future; neither are they to expect total perfection now. What God promises is a substantial healing now and a total healing after Christ’s return. Putting this fact in terms of God’s cosmic plan, we may say that God has already begun the reconciliation of all things in human history.
What, then, is the role of the church in God’s cosmic plan? According to Ephesians 3:10, God’s will is that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (italics mine).
The church is the earthly agent of the cosmic reconciliation God wills. God is bringing about his cosmic purpose through the instrumentality of the church. This means the church’s mission is broader than evangelism. Evangelism is at the center of the church’s role as agent of reconciliation, and therefore is the first priority. But the mission of the church extends to reconciliation in other areas as well.
German missiologist Peter Beyerhaus clarified the church’s role in God’s cosmic purpose when he said the church is “the new messianic community of the kingdom.” And, “The messianic kingdom presupposes a messianic community.” Thus the church in the world “is the transitory communal form” of the kingdom of God “in the present age, and through his church Christ exercises a most important ministry towards the visible coming of the kingdom.” So the church is God’s earthly agent of his coming reign. Beyerhaus defined this kingdom as “God’s redeeming lordship successively winning such liberating power over the hearts of men, that their lives and thereby finally the whole creation (Rom. 8:21) become transformed into childlike harmony with his divine will.” (Peter Beyerhaus, “World Evangelization and the Kingdom of God.” Biblical Foundation Paper prepared for the International Congress on World Evangelization, Lausanne, Switzerland, July 16–25, 1974.) This is the cosmic perspective in which the Bible sees the church. The kingdom of God is coming, and to the extent this coming takes place in space–time history before the return of Christ, it is to be accomplished through the people of God.
2. The Bible sees the church in charismatic, rather than institutional, terms.
According to the New Testament, the church is a charismatic organism, not an institutional organization. The church is the result of the grace (Greek, charis) of God. It is through grace that the church is saved (Eph. 2:8) and through the exercise of spiritual gifts of grace (charismata) that the church is edified (Rom. 12:6–8; Eph. 4:7–16; 1 Pet. 4:10–11). Thus the church is, by definition, charismatic. As Clark Pinnock obser ved, “According to Scripture, the Church is a charismatic community.” (Clark H. Pinnock, “The New Pentecostalism: Reflections by a Well-Wisher,” Christianity Today, 17)
The church’s essential characteristic is life, as suggested by biblical figures for the church. Its life is an organized life, to be sure; but this organization is secondary and derivative. It is the result of life. The church is, first of all, a spiritual organism, which may, secondarily, have some organizational expressions. The New Testament and the writings of the first church fathers show that the early church saw itself as a charismatic community, not as an organization or institution. “Most church historians agree that the apostolic church was a charismatic, spiritual fellowship,” said Donald Bloesch. (Donald G. Bloesch, The Reform of the Church, 112)
With the gradual institutionalization of the church, however, the idea of the church as an organization became more prominent and largely crowded out the charismatic–organic view, especially in the West, where Roman views of law and the state had their influence on the church. Thus “in the history of theology the Church as assembled community of the faithful has been too often neglected in favor of the Church as institution,” noted Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng. (Hans Küng, Structures of the Church, trans. Salvator Attanasio, 12)
In the biblical view, God gives his gracious gift of salvation on the basis of Christ’s work and through the agency of the Holy Spirit. This provides the basis of the church’s community life. The pure light of God’s “manifold grace” is then refracted as it shines through the church, producing the varied, many-colored charismata.
This provides the basis for the church’s diversity within unity. The church is edified through the exercise of spiritual gifts as “the whole body, joined and knit together by ever y joint with which it is supplied, . . . makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love” (Eph. 4:16). This is important in order to have a healthy, growing church. In order for the church to reach its true, biblical potential, it must be based on a charismatic model, not an institutional model.
Churches that structure themselves charismatically are largely prepared for the future. But churches that are encased in rigid, bureaucratic, institutional structures may soon find themselves trapped in culturally bound forms which are fast becoming obsolete.
3. The Bible sees the church as the community of God’s people.
The essential biblical figures of body and bride of Christ, household, temple, or vineyard of God, and so forth, give us the basic idea of the church. But these are metaphors and not a definition. I believe the most biblical definition is to say that the church is the community of God’s people.
The two key elements here are the church as a people, a new race, or humanity, and as a community, or fellowship. People and community are two poles that together make up the biblical reality of the church. On the one hand, the church is the people of God. This concept, with rich Old Testament roots, underlines the objective fact of God’s acting throughout history to call and prepare “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pet. 2:9). Here the emphasis is on the universality of the church—God’s people scattered throughout the world in hundreds of specific denominations, movements, and other structures. Seen in cosmic–historical perspective, the church is the people of God. On the other hand, the church is a community or fellowship, a koinonia.
This emphasis, found more in the New Testament, grows directly out of the experience of Pentecost. If peoplehood underlines the continuity of God’s plan from Old to New Testament, community calls attention to the new covenant, the new wine, the new thing God did in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Spirit’s baptism at Pentecost. The emphasis here is on the locality of the church in its intense, interactive community life at the level of the local congregation. Seen as a charismatic organism, the church is the community of the Holy Spirit.
The church, then, is the community of God’s people. It is a charismatic organism established by God as the agent of his plan or human history. As such, it is cross-culturally valid and can be implanted and grow in any human culture.
Excerpt from Howard Snyder’s 40th Anniversary Edition of The Problem of Wineskins. This book is perfect for pastors seeking to assess their faithfulness to biblical ministry; lay people exploring non-professional ministry; the pastor’s library. Get your copy from our store now.
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